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For one school leader, athletics and education go hand-in-hand

Kelsey Pardue  |  February 19, 2020

This is our second installment in the “What is a DSQ?” blog series.

A former basketball player and coach, Cathy Henkenberns’ leadership style has its roots in athletics.

“You learn in sports that you can’t win every game. It’s what you learn in the game, and how you go into practice. You must adjust, where are the gaps? That’s what we do in the classroom,” Henkenberns said. “The ultimate goal is to see students grow, it’s not always about what’s on the scoreboard, but can you see the trajectory of students growth over time.”

As she reflects on what drew her to the field of education, her passion for athletics made it a natural fit. She feels grateful to have had certain teachers and coaches who were key mentors for her at different times of her life. Being able to be that teacher, coach, and mentor for others now is the intrinsic motivation that keeps her going.

She started her teaching career as a kindergarten through eighth-grade physical education teacher at Canton Charter Academy, a National Heritage Academies (NHA) school. What drew her to NHA was the organization’s student-focused approach.

That fits perfectly with the best piece of advice Henkenberns received: “When faced with a decision to take action, act in the best interest of the child.”

While her role in education may have changed over the years, that advice stills rings true and is what fuels her passion for student growth. “Sometimes my work can be challenging, but when I see our growth scores are above and beyond in any given year, that gets me excited,” she said. “We’re focused on the student, where are they, and how are we growing them.”

A large part of this work involves developing school leaders. “I love working and developing leaders. That’s where the coach part comes in. My passion for being on the basketball court transcends career boundaries to now developing deans and principals to be effective leaders in their buildings,” she added.

Developing leaders requires her to know when to call the shots, and when to take the bench and let her team work it out.

When a pass to another player on the basketball court leads to a basket, they call that an assist. Something similar occurs for Henkenberns as a leader. “When one of my principals leverages their relationships with fellow school leaders and receives support and/or advice, that fills my heart with joy,” she shared. “They have a level of trust with each other. They don’t stay in isolation. Those relationships cultivate strong, effective leaders.”

Her supervisor, Jim DeKorne, senior director of school quality, frequently sees her background as a coach translate into her work as a DSQ, “Just like regular winning on a basketball court is determined by consistency with the fundamentals of dribbling, passing, shooting, and guarding, Cathy helps all of her schools become excellent at the fundamentals of good teaching, namely planning, delivery, assessing, and revising.”

Since Henkenberns previously served as a principal prior to being a DSQ, she’s also able to lead by experience.

One lesson she has learned in her tenure as a leader is that it’s OK to not know everything. It’s crucial to know how to connect individuals and leverage your team.  “We learn more when it doesn’t go right. As principal, we have to be the models of learners. It’s not about perfection. You are on a learning journey,” she explained.

DeKorne added, “Cathy, herself, is a learner. She models what we expect of every student and teacher in the building.”

Henkenberns, who recently earned her Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Central Michigan University, supports six of NHA’s southeast Michigan schools, including Achieve Charter Academy, Canton Charter Academy, Plymouth Scholars Charter Academy, South Arbor Charter Academy, South Canton Scholars Charter Academy, and South Pointe Charter Academy; and two Colorado schools, Foundations Academy and Landmark Academy at Reunion.

Come back on April 1 to learn about Matt Carlton, a DSQ who sheds light on his experience working alongside school leaders in Ohio to create outstanding academic growth